Canada is in the process of evacuating its three-member mobile laboratory team from Sierra Leone over concerns for the safety of the scientists.
The Public Health Agency of Canada said late Tuesday that the team is being recalled to Canada after people at the hotel complex where they were staying were diagnosed with Ebola.
The agency did not elaborate on who the people were and why the federal government felt the situation was significant enough to require that the scientists be brought back to Canada.
The agency did say the Canadians had no contact with the sick individuals and are not themselves showing signs of illness. But the three will remain in voluntary isolation and will be closely monitored on their trip back to Canada and after their return to the country.
“The risk that any of the three individuals is infected is very low,” the statement said.
It is believed the three were based at Kailahun, in eastern Sierra Leone. On Tuesday, the World Health Organization announced it was temporarily removing staff from that operation, sending them to Freetown.
Last weekend it was revealed a Senegalese epidemiologist working for the WHO at Kailahun had contracted Ebola; it is still not known how the man was exposed to the virus.
The WHO statement said the case is being investigated and staff won’t be returned until the work is completed. It said it would be looking at the living arrangements of all the staff at Kailahun as part of the investigation.
The Canadian team was in Sierra Leone under the aegis of the WHO’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, or GOARN.
The news that the Canadians would be brought home was announced in an emailed statement from the public health agency. It said the government was in the process of finalizing the travel arrangements for the scientists, but gave no indication of when the three would depart from Sierra Leone or how they would be brought back to Canada.
Earlier this week a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development said the federal government has been working on plans to repatriate Canadians from the Ebola zone of West Africa, in case the need arose.
“Considerable planning has been undertaken in the event that a Canadian becomes sick abroad and asks for assistance with repatriation,” spokesperson Beatrice Fenelon said in an emailed response to questions.
“DFATD has identified commercial medical air evacuation companies to fly a sick person home to Canada and has been in discussion with provincial health ministries about where a possible patients could safely receive care.”
Fenelon said Canada has been working with international partners, including Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) on how best to address the Ebola situation.
“We are seeking to ensure that the global Ebola strategy (including factors such as medevac issues) are handled in as co-ordinated and effective a manner as possible, so as to provide clarity regarding options should health-care workers become infected in the course of their duties.”
A growing number of airlines have suspended flights to the countries battling the outbreak — Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
The UN and the WHO have said the scarcity of flights into the countries is impeding their ability to ramp up the response to the outbreak and is hindering the flow of medical equipment and other essential aid.
In announcing the decision to temporarily withdraw from Kailahun, the WHO said staff at the treatment centre were exhausted and dispirited and need a break. It did not make reference to the departure of the Canadians or the fact that people at their hotel were infected with the virus.
“This was the responsible thing to do. The field team has been through a traumatic time through this incident,” Dr. Daniel Kertesz, the WHO representative in Sierra Leone, said in a statement.
“They are exhausted from many weeks of heroic work, helping patients infected with Ebola. When you add a stressor like this, the risk of accidents increases.”
The WHO said the Kailahun post will be restaffed after the work is done. And the Public Health Agency said Canada will send another lab team to Sierra Leone once appropriate measures have been taken to ensure a safe environment.
The WHO has not issued revised case numbers for nearly a week and has repeatedly said its numbers are likely underestimates of the scale of the outbreak.
Its last report said there have been more than 2,600 infections and 1,400 deaths, making this the largest Ebola outbreak on record.